was born stupidly polite, and nurture has lacquered onto my nature a
high-gloss obsequiousness. (Poke me and I apologise.) It may be every
man for himself out there, but I'll hold the door open for the man behind
me. Trouble is, I've a thin skin, which is such little protection against
thickness. (Thank me for holding the door for you, clown.) It's an ugly
It's a wonder I've cycled thousands of London miles; haven't, indeed,
suffered apoplexy to my senses and sensibilities at my first traffic
light. Because I may be wearing a helmet, but they're all in
For example, I never had doors opened for me until I became a cyclist...
Surely one component of rudeness is being unobservant.
Another is being, oh, aggressively observant. Take car horns. Using
a horn is like running for a political office. Anybody who actually
wants to, habitually needs to, shouldn't be allowed near one. A horn
should be packaged like a fire alarm: break glass only in case of emergency.
Rather than a safety tool it's often a crowbar to the reflexes of the
cyclist finely tuned to his or her environment. Some of us are trying
to balance out here.
A horn says one thing, and says that badly: Hey!!!
"Yes?" you wonder. "What can I do for you today? Move
out of your way? Go faster? Disappear? What, exactly?"
A misused horn has lordly pretensions to establishing right-of-way.
Its only saving grace is that it helps to identify the closest hothead
with some precision.
I'm so horn-averse I don't even use my bicycle bell, don't even know
why I installed it. When pedestrians -- or civilians, as I tend to think
of them -- wander into the road I simply slow down, perhaps remembering
my origins.* Before I had wheels I, too, walked.
A pedestrian crossing is a lovely would-be equaliser between civilian
and driver. Traffic lights are vacantly authoritarian and rather tedious
but crossings invite something approaching respect in a driver. Sometimes
they even stop, or at least apply their brakes.
Civilians often wave a perplexing but touching little 'Thank you' to
drivers for giving them leave to cross the street. But watch closely
if a cyclist and driver stop at a zebra crossing at the same time: note
how the civilian salutes the driver and ignores you. You, who are arguably
a much closer relative to him, and with whom his sympathies should properly
reside. You, sans accelerator, the horse of your own horsepower. You,
huffing and puffing, are invisible. The wave may be a forgivable example
of misplaced courtesy, but let it be dispensed with some justice.
It would be unfair, of course, to conclude this minor catalogue of offences
without mentioning cyclists themselves: from the courier who goes colour-blind
at intersections, to the pavement rider who forgets that he can appear
as menacing to civilians as cars are to him, to the weekender who seeks
martyrdom by riding at night without lights, almost flaunting his invisibility.
As cyclists we assume a mantle of some small grace. We're endeavouring
not to be part of the problem, and find indifference or blanket hostility
mystifying. However, the sins are all out of proportion to the sinners.
A final admission: I'm also a (mildly self-hating) driver. Occasionally
my needs conspire to put me behind a wheel rather than behind handlebars.
The car is a wonderful, terrible invention which has stranded us on
insular metal islands. Adrift, we have little need for politeness, just
Today, June 1998
pedestrians might prefer a bicycle bell to nothing at all. It doesn't
sound nearly as unpleasant as a horn. Speaking of which, I'm aware
that continental drivers often toot a little warning when approaching
cyclists, and certainly no offense is intended. It's all a matter
of what you're used to.